One of the global architects of terror responsible for inspiring the 9-11 tragedy was finally killed this week. Osama Bin Laden, who violently hijacked the faith of 1.5 billion to rationalize his perverse criminal actions, is permanently seared into our collective consciousness as the 21st century boogeyman.
Sadly, in the eyes of many Americans, Bin Laden has also become one of the most visible icons of “Islam” alongside Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Furthermore, 10 years after the 9-11 tragedy, nearly 60% of Americans say they don’t know a Muslim, and the favorability rating of Islam is at its lowest ebb.
Muslim Americans, like much of the world, still cannot escape the overbearing shadow of the fallen towers. There is a permanent fork in the timeline of the Muslim American narrative: Pre-911 and Post 9-11.
Pre 9-11, I was another awkward, well intentioned, multi hyphenated Muslim American with exotic dietary habits who prayed 5 times a day and drank chai instead of alcohol during college.
Post 9-11, I received a special screening in front of my fellow passengers who boarded the plane to North Carolina while observing my Muslim security clearance zoo exhibit.
I felt like smoking a cigarette and spouting a witty barb after my intimate encounter with the TSA.
Thoroughly cleared and cleansed of any potential terrorist-y vibes, I was the last to board the packed plane.
I headed down the aisle to find my inconceivably small, economy seat located near the end of the plane.
For the first time in my life, my fellow airline passengers all looked at me with utter fear; eyed widened and mouths agape.
My brown face, 5 o’clock shadow and inconvenient TSA screening immediately profiled and lumped me as one of “them” who attacked “us” on 9-11.
My attempts to placate them with friendly smiles and nods only intensified their palpable anxiety, and their discomfort turned to horrified stares. I pulled an audible and decided to simply bow my head, make no loud, sudden noises, and move as quickly as possible to my masochistic seat.
As a shy, awkward, overweight kid whose first language was Urdu, I had experienced mockery, ridicule and even alienation in my childhood. But, before that day, I had never been made to feel like Boo Radley or Darth Vader.
I had never terrified anyone by merely “being” me. It was a jarring and disturbing experience.
But, this memorable experience, along with others like it, presented me a tremendous opportunity to bridge these seemingly impenetrable divides caused by ignorance, misunderstanding and fear.
What else could explain the graffiti on a Portland mosque that included “Go Home” and “Osama Today Islam tomorrow (sic)” mere hours after Osama bin Laden was reported as killed?
The rich and complex identity and narrative of Muslim American communities, who are the most diverse U.S. religious group in terms of ethnic diversity, socio-economic status, education levels and political affiliation, is now personified by a tall, lanky, bearded terrorist leader who suffered from narcissism, hypocritical delusions of religious authority and a compulsive need to release You Tube videos.
The lumping of nearly 250 years of Muslim American history with the icon of terror and wholesale categorization of 2 million American citizens as potential suspects explains why nearly 28% oppose Muslims sitting on the Supreme Court and a third oppose us running for President.
A new report found the Department of Homeland Security continues to push Muslims into detention and deportation “even without explicit racial and religious targeting built into Special Registration.”
“We’re seeing a trend where Muslims are being deported, detained and denied entry into the United States for no good reason except tenuous affiliations or unsubstantiated claims,” said Sameer Ahmed an attorney at Asian American Legal Defense Fund (AALDEF).
Republican candidates have successfully played the “fear card” using Muslims as their Ace. They gain significant political mileage with some of their constituents by mainstreaming the manufactured myth of “creeping sharia” taking over the U.S. For 2016, the right wing is creating “anti-bigfoot” and “anti-unicorn” legislation ? fear not, the war on terror never ends.
Muslim Americans also share blame due to hermitically sealing themselves in an isolated, cultural cocoon and not proactively engaging civic society in wider numbers. One cannot expect change by sitting in the stands as an ineffectual spectator, content with being an irate cultural consumer instead of a productive cultural producer and participant.
The only way to experience reconciliation and healing is to engage in honest self reflection and face the tragedy of that day – with its subsequent collateral damage – head on.
Without an honest dialogue, we’re simply shadow boxing.
So, here we are, nearly 10 years later, with that ubiquitous symbolic icon of “terror” now vanquished.
However, we have yet to bury and forget the bigotry, stereotypes, hate, and unfounded fears that were born and nurtured as a reaction to a few men’s perverse deeds.
Americans are enjoying this moment of collective relief; this moment of well earned catharsis.
But, tomorrow we will wake up and realize that we still have a long way to go in battling extremism and ignorance.
Ten years later, at least many of us now understand that the only way forward is by embarking on this journey together. We have also earned and learned the valuable lesson that if we are to truly change ourselves, then the only way to escape our shadow is to finally confront it.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, journalist and attorney, whose play, The Domestic Crusaders, will be published by McSweeney’s in December, 2010. He is consulting Voice of Witness on their forthcoming book of post-9/11 oral histories. He blogs at Goatmilk.